Maxim is totally gothic. He's a prudish, brooding figure with sinister secrets, whose temper is always on the verge of erupting. He's simultaneously a tortured soul and a calculating arch-manipulator. At forty-two, he's handsome, wealthy, and the proud owner of Manderley, a huge estate with a castle-like mansion.
Maxim would be right at home in an Edgar Allan Poe story or a Brontë novel. Maxim escapes official justice for murdering his wife Rebecca, whom he believes to be pregnant with another man's child.
While his murderous act defines Maxim for many readers, we don't learn about it until late in the book. At that point, we've already built up some sympathy for him. Our early view of Maxim is mostly through the eyes of his second wife, known only as Mrs. de Winter, and she's head over heels in love with him.
We think Maxim belongs in a long line of fictional folks characterized by a dual nature, like Harvey Dent/Two Face, or Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. Within such characters, both good and evil are at war, and repressed desires are always bubbling up to the surface.
So, we compared Maxim to Two Face and Dr. Jekyll. Both of those guys change back and forth between two very different appearances. Maxim has this capacity as well, but it's much more subtle. Mr. de Winter himself isn't even aware of it. In fact, when the topic of the costume ball comes up, Maxim claims that he never puts on a costume. Um, seriously?
He does seem perfectly comfortable in his own skin and is at ease in most situations. Yet, he does change, when he's angry, excited, or retreating inward. When Maxim sees Mrs. de Winter wearing the same costume Rebecca wore, Mrs. de Winter describes his facial transformation: "His eyes were the only living things in the white mask of his face" (16.246). When she later joins him at the ball, dressed in regular clothes, she sees that "[h]is face [is] a mask, his smile [is] not his own" (17.111). There's your costume for you, Max.
When Colonel Julyan eats with Frank and the de Winters, the topic of the costume ball (which Julyan attended) comes up. We think a snippet from the conversation is revealing:
Frank: "It's a universal instinct of the human species, isn't it, that desire to dress up in some sort of disguise?"
Maxim: "I must be very inhuman, then."
Colonel Julyan: "It's natural, I suppose, […] for all of us to wish to look different. We are all children in some ways." (22.139-141, speaker inserted by Shmoop)
Frank and Colonel Julyan seem to suggest that role playing is a healthy, perhaps even necessary outlet for our desires: maybe dressing up as someone else helps us work out our issues. But since he married Rebecca, Maxim's entire life is a disguise – happily married man, bereaved widower, contented newlywed, confidant, together, utterly successful. The disguise is both what he wants the world to see, and what he wishes was actually true.
Dr. Faust and Dr. Faustus stories have been around since at least the 1500s. They use the man-sells-soul-to-the devil motif to explore the human condition. Christopher Marlowe's play The Tragicall History of Dr. Faustus and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust: A Tragedy are the most famous and influential examples. The basic story is that Dr. Faustus trades his soul to the devil, called Mephastophilis or Mephostopheles, for forbidden knowledge.
In Rebecca, Maxim describes Rebecca as his devil, his Mephastopheles. Maxim, Mrs. de Winter, and even Mrs. Danvers refer to Rebecca as "the devil" several times. During Maxim's confession he suggests that Rebecca, as the devil, drove him mad. He says, "It doesn't make for sanity, does it, living with the devil." (20.38). Now check out what he says after that:
"[Rebecca] made a bargain with me up there, on the side of the precipice […] 'I'll look after your precious Manderley for you, make it the most famous show-place in all the country, if you like […]. They'll say we are the luckiest, happiest, handsomest couple in all England. What a leg-pull, Max! […] what a God-damn triumph!'"
Maxim even quotes Rebecca as saying "God-damn" to emphasize his vision of her as a devil. If Maxim is telling the truth, that means he stayed trapped in an unhappy marriage for years, in order to make Manderley what he thinks he wants it to be. But like all Faustian heroes, he learns that the price he pays for getting what he wants is the inability to enjoy his prize.
A big difference between the Faust stories and Rebecca is that in those stories, the devil is actually the devil, a supernatural being who can't be conquered. Here, the so-called devil is the victim of a hideous murder. Her killer is demonizing her, to make his crime seem acceptable to both himself and his new wife.
"All married men with lovely wives are jealous, aren't they? And some of 'em just can't help playing Othello. They're made that way. I don't blame them. I'm sorry for them." (23.157)
Spurred on by these lines from Favell, readers and critics often compare Maxim to Othello, star of William Shakespeare's famous tragedy. Othello murders his wife Desdemona in a fit of jealousy when he mistakenly believes she's unfaithful to him. To hear Maxim tell it, his murder of Rebecca (who was, it seems, unfaithful) has nothing to do with jealousy. He claims he's never loved her or wanted her, but puts up with her to avoid the shame of divorce and to preserve Manderley. He shows no remorse for killing her. Othello, on the other hand, loved Desdemona deeply and bitterly regrets his crime.
There are a couple similarities, though:
Othello, it's often speculated, never had sex with Desdemona before he killed her. It's unlikely that Maxim and Rebecca never had sex, but it's very likely they didn't have much of it. In Othello's case, the jealousy is compounded by the fact that Othello believes another man takes his new wife's virginity. In Maxim's case, sexual frustration, distinct from jealousy, might be an issue.
Maxim and Othello are also both driven by misinformation and lies. Iago (using some Mrs. Danvers style maneuvers) whips up Othello's jealousy and leads Othello to believe Desdemona is cheating. In Rebecca, Rebecca herself becomes the Iago figure, flaunting her affairs, and, finally, lying about being pregnant with another man's child, who she plans to pass off as Maxim's to spite him.
In any case, comparing Maxim with Othello is a good opportunity for us to think about jealousy and whether it applies to Maxim. Could it be that Maxim was actually in love with Rebecca? Was he foaming with jealousy at the thought of other men enjoying her? Was he furious at the thought of having to look at another man's child all his life? Or, did Maxim come to think of Rebecca as a total monster because of all the awful things she did?
Whatever we knew about Maxim at Manderley, we know now is completely different. Take a look at this passage, where Mrs. de Winter describes how she can tell when Maxim is remembering the past:
I can tell by the way he will look lost and puzzled […] all expression dying away from his dear face […] and in its place a mask will form […] formal and cold, beautiful still but lifeless. He will fall to smoking cigarette after cigarette, not bothering to extinguish them, and the glowing stubs will lie around on the ground like petals. He will talk quickly and eagerly about nothing at all, snatching at any subject as a panacea to pain. (2.3)
This "mask" sounds familiar. Mrs. de Winter describes this look to us too many times to count throughout the story. But Maxim talking "quickly and eagerly"? That doesn't sound like the self-assured well-spoken chap we know. So what has changed to make him seem more like a patient than a mogul? The "glowing stubs" give us a hint. Also, think back to Maxim's confession to Mrs. de Winter. What has always been most important to Maxim? Let's ask him: "I put Manderley first, before anything else" (20.44).
So, Manderley burning (especially if people burned with it) might be the worst blow Maxim could take. In losing Manderley he loses the thing he loves the most. Now, he doesn't care what burns – he drops his "glowing stubs" everywhere. The passage also reveals that Mrs. de Winter is still thinking in terms of Rebecca: the glowing stubs remind her of "petals" like the azalea petals on the ground in the Happy Valley, petals that smell like Rebecca. It looks like she may have won, after all.